Posted 1/16/2013 03:09 pm
Updated 2 years ago
LITTLE ROCK - After running for governor as a supporter of the death penalty, Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday that the experience of signing a death warrant for the first time caused his thinking on the issue to "evolve" and that he would sign legislation outlawing the punishment if legislators were to send him such a bill.
The Democratic governor doesn't plan to make repealing the death penalty part of his legislative agenda for this year's session, nor does he intend to ask any lawmaker to introduce such legislation, Beebe's spokesman, Matt DeCample, said. Several top lawmakers said it's unlikely legislators would propose a death penalty repeal.
Beebe said he changed his mind about the death penalty after having to sign his first death warrant.
"The awesome burden of being the last person to have to sign one of those things sobers you differently than talking about it in the abstract," Beebe said.
His remarks came in response to an audience question during his appearance at the Political Animals Club meeting at the governor's mansion.
Since taking office in 2007, Beebe has approved four executions, but none of those have been carried out because of various court challenges.
In signing the death warrants, Beebe said, he pored over "every word of the testimony" in search of a "scintilla" of doubt about the conviction. He said in all four cases, his review of the court papers convinced him of the person's guilt but that the experience of having to sign the order shifted his feelings about the death penalty.
"It is an agonizing process, whether you're for the death penalty or against the death penalty," he said. "Everybody can claim they're for it until you're actually the person who's got to sign it."
Arkansas last executed an inmate in 2005. Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's execution law, holding that it was unconstitutional for the Legislature to defer to the state Corrections Department in selecting the type of lethal drugs used in an execution. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of lethal injection or the death penalty itself.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, said the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, would certainly seek to resolve that Arkansas Supreme Court decision in one way or another.
"It would be an abdication of our duties to just let the court's order stand and not do anything," he said. "We need to either say, 'We're not going to have it,' or 'We're going to do it in an appropriate way.'"
He said that in the process of resolving the Supreme Court's concerns about the methods of execution, lawmakers would also debate the merits of the death penalty. While he personally supports the death penalty, Hutchinson said he plans to listen to both sides when he convenes a hearing on the death penalty some time before the end of the month.
The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House said Tuesday that there was little interest in any efforts to repeal the death penalty.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said he supports the death penalty and doesn't think lawmakers want to eliminate capital punishment in the state.
"I'm not interested in revoking the death penalty here," Carter said.
House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said he supports repealing the death penalty but agreed that it would be "very difficult" to pass out of the Legislature.
"I doubt that we'll see such a bill filled," he said. "In a session where we know that we're going to have a lot of fights over Medicaid, people's appetite for adding more controversy might not be there."
Senate President Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said he personally supports keeping the death penalty but that it was too early to gauge what type of interest there would be in the state Senate for repealing it.
"I took the governor's comments as an invitation for someone to act," he said. "The question will be if there is an individual member who is going to introduce this."
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